Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Accounting for one Pep Guardiola side is a tall order; overcoming two on the trot, however, unsurprisingly looks beyond Mauricio Pochettino’s spent Spurs.
Erik ten Hag sat under the Pep learning tree at Bayern Munich, subsequently infusing Ajax’s youthful squad with the same Cruyffian aroma that pervades everything the Catalan touches. Highly organised patterns of play, both with and without the ball, are hallmarks of the Dutchman’s preferred system, too. Pressing, as with Guardiola, is paramount for Ajax, regardless of the opposition at hand. And Pochettino, kindly, made it easy for them.
By selecting an ill-advised 3-5-1-1, the Argentinian invited Ajax’s front-three to press his centre-backs man-for-man. And with Donny van de Beek assiduously following up on a frazzled Victor Wanyama, who misplaced a whopping 44% of his first-half passes, Spurs found passage through midfield nigh on impossible.
Penned into their own half, therefore, for large periods, Tottenham duly exacerbated their woes by all-too-often eschewing the escape valve that Fernando Llorente represented. Llorente won seven aerial duels before half-time, five more than any other player. But Pochettino’s stubborn insistence upon trying to break the Ajax press on the floor limited his impact. Tellingly, Spurs’ more direct second-half approach produced their only shot on target. Llorente was central to Dele Alli’s saved effort, laying off a long ball to the peripheral Englishman.
de Jong dictates
Spurs, as is their wont under Pochettino, also tried a high-press of their own, of course. Facing Ajax’s ball-playing centre-backs up with Llorente and strike partner Lucas Moura looked promising. But the aggressive positioning of both David Neres and Hakim Ziyech dissuaded Pochettino’s wing-backs from pressing too high. As a result, full-backs Joel Veltman and Nicolás Tagliafico were always free to collect André Onana’s pinpoint long passes. And, at any rate, Frenkie Jong’s customary tendency to drop between his centre-backs and dictate rendered Spurs’ press moot anyway. Both de Jong, and his full-backs, predictably dominated the first-half touchmaps.
Further forward, diagonal passes pulled Tottenham’s narrow midfield three from pillar to post: Guardiola, of course, would be proud. Both of Ajax’s two shots on target, including van de Beek’s winner, resulted from the same avenue: a switch-of-play out left, followed by at least one square pass inside, followed by a through-ball from the space Alli vacated when forced to shift across in the first place. Ziyech played both the initial switch and the resultant through-ball for the goal, drifting into an inside-right pocket that Tottenham never really adequately manned.
That Ajax failed to test Hugo Lloris again after van de Beek’s second (saved) chance is a testament to one of the Dutch side’s most glaring weaknesses: a chronic inability to pack the opposition area. With Dusan Tadic dropping effectually between the lines, and Neres pulling wide to drag Kieran Trippier away, only van de Beek was really minded to run towards goal. With Ziyech sitting in his pocket and Lasse Schone, like de Jong, more renowned for his languid playmaking, right-back Veltman often found himself the furthest Ajax man forward.
Boasting just one clean sheet in their previous 10 games, defence is clearly also an ongoing problem for ten Hag’s side. But, led by the seemingly omnipotent Danny Blind, Ajax defied that perception by laying on an impressive rearguard action after the game’s momentum took a turn on 30 minutes. Key to that pendulum shift was Pochettino’s canny decision to enact a crucial tactical change 10 minutes prior: 3-5-1-1 giving way to 4-3-1-2. His newly-installed back-four afforded Spurs an extra man in the build-up phase, significantly blunting Ajax’s first press. And the diamond, with the additional central midfield body it carries, helped the hosts to garner a foothold in midfield, too.
Off the hook
Chances duly dried up for Ajax, whose kamikaze and poorly-marshaled high-line gifted Spurs two free headers from innocuous-looking free-kicks. By the time Toby Alderweireld sent the second wide, moments before half-time, Spurs had strengthened further: Moussa Sissoko arriving off the bench to add much-needed steel and press-resistance to Spurs’ previously overwhelmed engine-room. There is a feeling that Pochettino missed a trick here, however: Tagliafico, on a yellow-card at left-back, was Ajax’s weak-link throughout. And, yet, at no point did Spurs stick a man on the Argentinian and pin him back. With Son Heung-min suspended and Erik Lamela injured, the hard-running Sissoko could have been that man. As could Moura, notwithstanding the dangerous dribbler’s maddening tendency to overcarry. Instead, Tagliafico was let off the hook.
As were Ajax in general, as the narrow Spurs diamond failed to muster a genuine goal-threat throughout an incredibly scrappy second-half. Both full-backs, Trippier and Danny Rose, were subbed on 80 minutes, too tired to add the requisite width to Spurs’ congested attack, as a typically weary Pochettino side limped towards the seasonal finishing line again. Here, Spurs missed another trick, delivering only 11 open-play crosses by game’s end – nine of which came after half-time. Llorente’s towering presence, therefore, was utterly wasted.
As was the late Neres chance that struck a post, a product of Noussair Mazraoui’s midfield burst past a shot-looking Christian Eriksen. In springing a surprise by swapping out the leggy Schone for the energetic full-back, ten Hag performed yet another masterstroke at a crucial juncture – just when Spurs were looking like making their newfound ascendancy count. The 49-year-old has now won three straight Champions League knockout games on the road, against the bright lights of Real Madrid, Juventus and Tottenham. His past-master Guardiola, on the other hand, hasn’t returned victorious from a big European road-trip since 2011. And so the student becomes the master? Time will tell.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112